Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Decadent and Delicious Mac and Cheese

I like mac n cheese. I always have. My husband, though he loves macaroni salads, never seemed to care for mac n cheese, though tastes change. He told me recently he liked mac n cheese just fine! Over the years, as I became more conscious of additives in pre-packaged foods that can affect health, I began weeding out the use of anything that came in a box, and most canned veggies. I still use canned tomato sauces, tomatoes, tomato paste, corn and most beans. I usually buy things that are either sodium free or 50% sodium where possible. Among the casualties to a more conscious lifestyle was mac n cheese in a box. Not that I ever used it extensively, but once in a while it was just easy.

For all those reasons, and likely a few more, I haven't had mac n cheese for many, many years. Since my husband gave me the OK on the concept, it has been in my mind. Last evening I decided to take the plunge. Mac 'n' cheese is not inherently healthy, even when homemade. The more unctuously cheesy, the more the fat and calorie content rise. But, at least I know what is in it when I make my own, and there are none of those extras; dyes, preservatives and such.
Decadent Mac and Cheese, with Crumb Topping

Cheeses of Choice

I was watching a program on TV a few nights back where someone was touting the richness of a mac n cheese made with cream cheese and Parmesan. That just struck me as a delightful combination. How much, though? I didn't want to go so far over the top. I ended up using about 1 1/2 ounces of Parmesan and 4 ounces of cream cheese. Then I realized I still had a little bit of shredded cheese in the fridge, from the Taco Pizza I made a few days ago. It was a "Mexican Blend" of 4 cheeses, only one of which was a yellow cheese. There wasn't all that much left. I threw it in. At this point the cheesy mixture was mostly white.

Going for the Gold

Turmeric Powder
Depending on the kind of cheese you use, the color of mac n cheese can be completely white or nice, bright yellow. The nice bright yellow in boxed products often comes from food dyes. I prefer something more natural. While I used a little bit of yellow cheese, I also added a little turmeric for color. Turmeric is a very healthy spice. It has some flavor, but it has an amazingly yellow color. It is very easy to include a little in the diet, here and there. The yellow color in a dish that has "cheese" in the very title, just makes the food look more enticing. 

Richness and Flavor

I like flavor in my foods, so I also used caramelized onions, garlic and thyme. I added nutmeg and a little chipotle powder. As far as the macaroni, I used an 8-ounce box of Ancient Harvest Quinoa Elbow Macaroni. It is gluten free. It isn't something I had to use, but I really like the flavor of that pasta and have bought it often for that reason alone. If it came in more shapes, it might be the only macaroni product I would buy. I did use quinoa spaghetti a few times, though it is far more breakable in the long, thin strands; not as ideal. Still, even that would be completely acceptable if being gluten free was a must. 

To Bake? 

Decadent Mac and Cheese, Baked with Crumb Topping
It is not remotely necessary to bake this dish. It is all properly cooked once the macaroni is stirred in. It will all depend on the kind of presentation you want to make. I decided on a pretty presentation and poured it into a casserole. Topping it with Panko crumbs seemed a no-brainer for a crispy top. I was casting about in my head for flavors to spice up the Panko. I could have just mixed in a little melted butter and/or oil to help with the browning. Last minute, I did an about-face, thinking of the pesto in my fridge. If you have never used pesto, it is generally a basil product with garlic and oil at its most basic. Cheese and pine nuts are often added, and I even add a little butter to make it a more spreadable (i.e. less drippy) mixture. Pesto would be an excellent way to flavor the crumbs, plus making a pretty green contrast with the golden-sauced macaroni. If making this for a quick family supper, just serve it as is and forget the crumbs and baking.

Decadent Mac and Cheese

Decadent Mac and Cheese alongside a steak
serves 6 to 8

8 ounces elbow macaroni
6 - 8 ounces bacon, fried, crumbled
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 onion, quartered, thinly sliced
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
2 - 3 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves, lightly chopped
3 tablespoons flour
3 cups milk
1/2 to 1 teaspoon of salt, as needed
a few grinds of fresh pepper
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg, freshly grated
1/4 teaspoon turmeric
1/4 - 1/2 teaspoon chipotle powder, optional
4 ounces cream cheese (low fat acceptable)
1 - 1 1/2 ounces (1/3 - 1/2 cup) shredded Parmesan (not the green cans)
1/2 - 3/4 cup shredded cheese; chedder, jack, a blend, other

CRUMB TOPPING - optional:
1 cup Panko bread crumbs
2 - 3 teaspoons Pesto
2 teaspoons olive oil

In a skillet, fry the bacon until crisp. Drain, crumble and set aside.

In a large, heavy sauce or soup pot (at least 4 to 6 quart), melt the 2 tablespoons of butter and the tablespoon of olive oil. Once hot, add in the onions and keep heat over low to medium low and slowly saute the onions until deep golden, about 30 minutes. 

While the onions are cooking, bring a large pot of water to boil and cook the macaroni according to package directions, or until al dente. Drain and rinse; set aside.

Once onions are deep golden, add in the garlic and thyme and cook for another 5 to 7 minutes. Make the bechamel sauce by sprinkling the flour over the onions and stirring until all the flour is incorporated. Add in the milk. Turn the heat up to medium, and whisk until the mixture bubbles and thickens slightly, about 5 - 10 minutes. Add in the salt, pepper, nutmeg, turmeric and chipotle powder. Toss in all the cheeses and allow them time to melt, stirring occasionally. Once melted, add the drained macaroni and the crumbled bacon. Stir well. The macaroni and cheese is now ready to serve.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees; 325 if on Convection. Set the Panko in a bowl. Add in the 2 teaspoons of olive oil and the pesto. With fingers, rub in the oil and pesto until well distributed and the crumbs are nicely green. Pour the macaroni and cheese into a greased, oven safe casserole, either 9 x 9-inches or7 x 11-inches. Pour in the macaroni mixture and sprinkle the crumbs evenly over the top. Bake for about 25 minutes, or until the crumbs are golden and the macaroni is bubbling. 

My passion is to teach people how to create a harmony of flavors with their cooking, and help pass along my love and joy of food, both simple and exotic, plain or fancy. I continue my journey in ethnic and domestic cuisines, trying new things weekly. Join me at A Harmony of Flavors Website and Marketplace, Tumblr, Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest. I am also on a spiritual journey and hope you will join me at my new blog, An Eagle Flies.